"The first task is to be fair. Part of fairness is alacrity, and I intend to do this as quickly as is consistent with completeness."
-- Independent counsel David M. Barrett in May 1995, when he was appointed to investigate Henry G. Cisneros, then secretary of housing and urban development.
FULL DISCLOSURE requires us to reveal that this quote is recycled: We used it at the beginning of an editorial in 1999. Mr. Barrett had been in business then for four years, had spent $10 million -- and had elicited a guilty plea from Mr. Cisneros to a single misdemeanor charge of making false statements to the FBI about payments to a former mistress. Mr. Cisneros paid a $10,000 fine.
In the six years since, Mr. Barrett has spent almost $12 million more, for a grand total of close to $22 million. "We're wrapping it up," Mr. Barrett said in March 2003, after the special court that oversees independent counsels said he should cease "all investigative and prosecutorial activities." He filed his final report in August 2004.
And yet, the expenses -- underwritten by taxpayers -- pile up steadily at $2 million a year. According to a new Government Accountability Office report, Mr. Barrett's bills for a recent six-month period were $930,742, including $464,009 for personnel and $263,316 for rent. The GAO pointedly added language that its audit didn't pass judgment on the reasonableness or appropriateness of Mr. Barrett's expenditures. Such as: How much has he paid himself over the years? (Mr. Barrett says his annual salary is about $140,000.) How did the office rack up $125,000 in travel bills in the past two years -- most of which was passed writing the report?
This is crazy. Since dispensing with Mr. Cisneros, Mr. Barrett has turned his attention to allegations of political interference with an IRS audit. But how could that possibly take six years to investigate and write up -- even facing the most litigious of adversaries? Some of the delay since the final report was filed is doubtless due to wrangling over what parts of the document should be made public; some conservatives mutter about a cabal of Clintons and their allies seeking to suppress damaging information with a blizzard of motions. That has stymied efforts by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) to cut off Mr. Barrett's funding.
But surely the court overseeing Mr. Barrett could take charge, settle the disputes and end this expensive mess. For his part, Mr. Barrett says that he has "absolutely" lived up to the pledge of promptness that he made at the outset of his investigation. "When the report is public," he told us, "people will understand why this took as long as it did."